Questions surround pharma company's response to drug ring

green and white pills

Despite prescribing data that showed a surge in maximum-strength OxyContin prescriptions, Purdue Pharma was slow to shut down drug distribution schemes, allowing physicians to dole out more than a million pills over the course of several years, according to a special report by the Los Angeles Times.

Following a $635 million settlement to resolve allegations it improperly marketed its landmark pain medication, Purdue Pharma touted the company’s anti-diversion team, led by a former fraud prosecutor and a former Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) official. Purdue tracked prescribing data for each physician in order to identify anomalies that might serve as a red flag for drug diversion.

However, when the data showed one Los Angeles physician prescribing as much as 26 prescriptions of 80-milligram pills--equal to 16 Vicodin pills--each day, the company merely placed the physician on an internal list of physicians with suspicious prescribing habits, according to the LA Times. Meanwhile, the clinic where she worked continued paying homeless people $25 to fill out forms and sit for an examination in order to receive a prescription of high-strength pills, which were later transferred to a “capper” and sold to drug dealers, the newspaper found.

Despite the wealth of prescribing data, along with warnings from pharmacists and Purdue’s own sales reps, the company didn’t report the prescribing anomalies to the DEA until 2011, two months after the LA clinic had been shut down by state and federal authorities. By then several other pharmacies had increased prescriptions for maximum strength OxyContin by as much as 1,400 percent.

Purdue’s general counsel told the newspaper that the company “complied with the law” and noted that “it would be irresponsible to direct every single anecdotal and often unconfirmed claim of potential misprescribing” to federal authorities.

Opioid prescribing has surfaced as a fraud concern for the Office of Inspector General, which recently reported that spending on commonly abused opioids has increased 165 percent in Medicare Part D over the past decade. Drug diversion schemes are often difficult for authorities to break up, and can lead to exponentially more unnecessary medical costs. Meanwhile, state investigations into opioid marketing practices could bring a second wave of high priced settlements.

- read the LA Times special report